The Murky Moral Questions of Libya
I’ve remained silent on the Libya issue until now for a number of reasons, the first and foremost being that it’s taken me a long time to settle on a position. Even now my opinion is highly nuanced and subject to change as the situation develops and more information comes to light. Normally I’ll only write a blog post when I feel very strongly about something or I have an opinion that I don’t see being expressed much elsewhere, but since this is a rather significant event in modern American history I feel obliged to write down my thoughts even if they’re neither unique nor firmly held.
The question of whether the United States should have gotten involved in the conflict between Gadhafi and the rebels seeking to overthrow him can be approached from two basic standpoints: intentions and consequences. If we take the stated intentions of President Obama at face-value, it seems we did the right thing going in. Gadhafi did promise to murder many thousands of his own people, and if the prevention of genocide isn’t a justifiable reason to use military force then I don’t know what is. I think we have a moral obligation to prevent genocide wherever and whenever we can.
However, it’s hard to justify intervening in Libya when we didn’t also intervene in Rwanda, the Sudan, and Darfur. It calls our motives into question when we selectively intervene like this, and the fact that Libya has oil while these other countries don’t taints the entire moral calculation as to whether or not our intentions here are correct.
But when all is said and done, oil or no oil, consistency or inconsistency, I think it’s better to have done something than to have done nothing. As one commentator said, I’d rather prevent some genocide some of the time than to prevent no genocide any time.
As for judging the rightness of our actions based on the consequences, this is almost impossible at this early stage. We may help the rebels topple Gadhafi and pave the way for a bourgeoning democracy, in which case history will judge our actions quite kindly. We might fail to oust Gadhafi and genocide will occur anyway, in which case all we’ll have done is waste a lot of resources. And we might find ourselves locked in yet another quagmire from which we can’t seem to extract ourselves no matter how many allies initially went in with us, in which case we’ll have another Iraq- or Afghanistan-like situation on our hands and we’ll have to judge Obama just as harshly as we judged Bush for getting us into a mess with no clear plan for getting us out.
But for now, we seem to have prevented Gadhafi from murdering thousands of his own people, so from a standpoint of consequences I would still judge our actions correct at the moment.
Of course it’s even more complicated when you consider some of the side-issues involved here. For one, I think we did the right thing by acting under the banner of the United Nations, letting France make the first move and handing off leadership as soon as possible. The last thing we want is to reinforce the perception of those in the Muslim world that we’ll use any excuse we can to drop bombs on Muslim countries. I think that if we play our cards right, this could really help us change the narrative of Muslim perceptions of the United States. In this case, at least, we are siding with the people against their brutal dictator. If we did this more consistently, I think it would be a far more effective tactic in the “war on terror” than any occupation ever could.
However, we can’t escape the possibility that this whole thing could backfire. If we help the rebels topple Gadhafi and then pull out and say, “you’re on your own” and the situation descends into chaos and violence, we might very well be blamed. Once you extend your hand to help one side win a fight, it could look very bad for us to pull our hand away when the initial fight is over. Conversely, if we stick around to help the freed Libyans in the aftermath of their revolution, we could be perceived as once again meddling in affairs we have no business sticking our noses in. Making sure this is a multi-national operation will help to mitigate that perception, but I worry we may soon find ourselves in a lose-lose situation.
Then there’s the issue of whether Barack Obama should have sought congressional approval for this military action. I am personally very uncomfortable with the idea of the imperial presidency, so I would have liked to see some discussion about this before we went in. I don’t like how the president can just plunge our nation into an international conflict without giving our representatives a chance to debate the merits in public and the media a chance to delve into the details for the sake of the public’s understanding.
From a pragmatist’s standpoint, however, I understand why this particular president would have chosen to bypass this particular congress at this particular moment in American politics. The Republicans will seize any opportunity to weaken the president no matter what the consequences, and handing them a chance to obstruct this military action for the sake of scoring political points would not have been worth the potential loss of tens of thousands of Libyan lives. Still, I would rather have seen some more discussion about this before we went in, and I’m very wary of the idea that any future president can bomb any country for any reason without seeking the approval of the American people in any way.
The final point I want to make is perhaps the only opinion I hold with 100% conviction, and that is that every American with a shred of respect for logic has to admit that the Republican Party has no interest in either ideological consistency or what is best for this country. I don’t think anyone who is honest with themselves could believe that had George W. Bush done the exact same thing in this situation, the Republicans who are currently criticizing Obama wouldn’t have supported him 100%. It should be abundantly clear to any rational person that Republicans and the commentators on Fox News will criticize Obama for anything, for any reason, no matter how much it contradicts positions they’ve previously held.
Either he shouldn’t have intervened at all, he should have intervened sooner, or in Newt Gingrich’s case both—depending on which day you ask. Some who cheered for the Iraq invasion now jeer American intervention as though they’ve always been opposed to it. Some who derided anyone who criticized Bush’s policies at a time of war as “unpatriotic” and accused them of “demoralizing the troops” are the very same people who are now criticizing Obama’s policies at a time or war. Somehow it doesn’t “embolden the enemy” to criticize a Democratic president at a time of war, only a Republican.
And last but certainly not least by far—any Republican who called for intervention (either before or after the actual intervention) should be forced to explain to the American people why we can afford to pay for foreign military campaigns but we have to cut pay for middle-class workers, take away food stamps and heating assistance from the poor, slash Social Security and Medicare, de-fund NPR, bust up the unions, and do all of these other things they insist we must do for the sake of “fiscal responsibility”. If we can afford to send hundreds of millions of dollars worth of cruise missiles to Northern Africa, I think we can afford to hand out a few food stamps.
So these are my thoughts on the Libya question at this point in time. I rarely support the president these days, but on this one I think he did the right thing (although I do have my reservations about his failure to involve Congress). I’m not an ideological pacifist or an isolationist—I do think violence can be justified to prevent more violence and I do think stronger nations ought to defend weaker ones—and I think this falls into the narrow category of morally justifiable military actions. I just wish we were more consistent.